The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

Three SPJ awards

Sunday, May 15, 2005, 12:00
Section: Awards,Journalism

Society of Professional JournalistsI just picked up three awards at last night’s Society of Professional Journalists Inland Southern California Chapter banquet. Unlike how it normally works, where the work you’re really proud of gets skipped in favor of totally random stuff – the year I went to Bosnia, the Virginia Press Association award I won was for my play reviews instead – one of my awards was actually for something that I really sweat over last year, and that pretty much defined my first year writing for the Hesperia Star.

Third place, Continuing Coverage, “casino series.� My editor, Peter Day, and I shared an award for our coverage of the proposed Timbisha Shoshone casino project in Hesperia. This is especially gratifying, since there was a lot of pressure, political and otherwise, to stop covering this story, and let the loose ends of the proposal remain a secret from the public. It took approximately four months to put together the first major article I wrote on this, picking up from Peter’s coverage of the proposal and initial vote by the public.

Judge’s comments: “Great reporting on a hot-topic story. Shady past of developer is well-brought out, as is dysfunction within tribe.�

I can’t remember which five stories we submitted, but here is sampling of our casino coverage online:

Third place, Best Crime/Law Enforcement Story, “Citizens On Patrol.� This is a good example of a “huh?� award.

The COP program lets ordinary volunteers stretch the manpower of the Hesperia station of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department further, by picking up the slack and doing work like directing traffic around accident scenes, driving out to check on the homes of vacationing residents and calling shut-ins to make sure they’re OK.

I basically just covered the training process for the new class. But I don’t feel like this was one of my best efforts, or was likely to have been a better law enforcement story than most of those submitted. It all just depends on getting the right judges in the right mood, I guess.

Judge’s comments: “Nice slice of life cop activity seldom written about.�

The original story is online here.

First place, Best Cultural/Diversity Story, “Church serves gay community, performs same sex ‘holy unions.’� This was a story I did at the end of my first month at the Star, and the silence in response to writing it was deafening; there are many relatively conservative residents in Hesperia, and I was surprised to have heard from neither people offended by what the church was doing, nor people supporting it. This is another one I worked hard on to do just right, and it’s gratifying to finally hear it paid off.

Judge’s comments: “This story tackles a sensitive topic of gays and religion head-on with clarity and grace.�

The original story can be found online.

More information about the awards is available online at the SPJ site.

Anyway, this is a long way to go to say “woo hoo!�

‘Hair’ at the Studio: ’60s tribal love musical returns

Thursday, August 7, 1997, 0:00
Section: Awards,Journalism

Virginia Press Association

This is one of three Potomac News reviews that won me a first place Virginia Press Association award in the Critical Writing category for medium-size newspapers in January 1998.

In its day, “Hair” was the musical that caused trouble. It insulted hallowed institutions, celebrated rebellion, featured nude actors — briefly — and rocked and rolled on Broadway.

Twenty-nine years later, “Hair” has returned to Washington, D.C., in a new production at the Studio Theatre.

The production is full of energy, sex-appeal and passion. But times have passed it by, and the anti-Vietnam, pro-hippie musical feels a little hollow in the 1990s.

For those of us who missed it the first time around — or weren’t even born — the legendary musical is about a group of drop-outs and protesters living on the streets, or in communal “pads.” But the spectre of Vietnam hovers over them, with one character finally getting drafted for the war.

The Studio production certainly captures the spirit of the times. The first act, the “love” portion of this “tribal love musical,” is enough to steam up anyone’s glasses. The cast is sexy, to put it mildly, and their gyrations and flirtations crank the heat up in the Studio Theatre’s Secondstage.

The musical, unfortunately, is structured in such a way that the first act, while fun, doesn’t have much drama to it. That’s all saved for the second act, where Claude (the excellent Jason Gilbert) wrestles with what to do about being drafted. His friends urge him to burn his draft card, and while he’s scared of death — hauntingly portrayed in two battle scenes — he also feels an uncool pull of patriotism.

Being a hippie for Claude is a lifestyle choice, not a political one, and although he’s the not the only one of his “tribe” of hippie drop-outs and protesters who feels that way, he’s the only one willing to even come close to admitting it.

More than two decades after the fall of Saigon, Gilbert and the cast of “Hair” make the idea of death in Southeast Asia, for a cause that was murky at best, terrifying.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with standout acting performances by Gilbert as Claude, Nell Mooney as the pregnant Jeanie, Chris Noll who plays Woof as though the character were on loan from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Larry Baldine as the self-centered Berger. The cast are no slouches in the musical department, either, with Rebecca Davis, Tracie Nicole Thoms and Kathleen Maguire blowing the roof off the theater with their vocal chops.

Not content with just the story, songs and costuming, even the Studio production’s staging harkens back to the 1960s. Audience members shift rooms with the players several times, and the cast is very “hands-on” with the audience. (In 19 months of reviewing plays for the Potomac News, “Hair” on Sunday was the first time an actress has kissed me during a performance.) The approach prompted a few nervous giggles from audience members at first, especially those sitting on the floor with cast members, but ultimately it works.

Seeing “Hair” may be a revelation for those too young to know it except from its soundtrack. Who knew that “Let The Sun Shine In” is actually a haunting, even eerie sorrowful song? (Well, my parents did, but who listens to their parents talk about the 1960s?)

This isn’t to say the Studio production is total flashback to the 1960s: Most of the men’s hair styles are hardly the flowing locks celebrated in the title song, and K’dara Korin (who plays Hud) sports a wildly anachronistic nipple ring. And there’s at least one bad, bad wig worn by an ensemble member.

And although the performance itself works as a whole, the production comes off as little more than a time capsule, with the same relevancy as the animatronic robots in the Hall of Presidents in Disney World. The sting of “Hair” is lessened, to put it mildly, when we have a president who has smoked marijuana and protested the Vietnam War.

The musical would been more of a rebellion during the Reagan-Bush years — when ’60s nostalgia was still hip, incidentally — or, if Studio had really wanted to ruffle some feathers, during the Persian Gulf War.

For all the love, lust, passion and pain in this production, its timing means it comes off feeling a little too … safe.

Which is a total bummer, man.

Kelly McGillis goes over-the-top in O’Neill’s ‘Electra’

Thursday, May 22, 1997, 0:00
Section: Awards,Journalism

Virginia Press Association

This is one of three Potomac News reviews that won me a first place Virginia Press Association award in the Critical Writing category for medium-size newspapers in January 1998.

There’s no way around it: “Mourning Becomes Electra” at the Shakespeare Theater is a stinker.

It’s not as though there aren’t solid performances in the production of Eugene O’Neill’s classic of near-incest and revenge. Ted van Griethuysen, as Civil War Brig. Gen. Ezra Mannon, turns in a solid performance, as do Franchelle Stewart Dorn, as his wife Christine, and Emery Battis as Seth Beckwith.

And the set is something to see: An enormous tomb-like estate, rotating to reveal an inner, dingy heart.

Although the play’s language sometimes feels a little dated or stilted, it’s still a powerful piece.

No, the problem is a startlingly over-the-top performance by Kelly McGillis as Mannon’s daughter Lavinia.

Never mind that yet again McGillis is yet again playing a character she’s absolutely unsuited for. McGillis, as she has in several other Shakespeare Theater plays this season, plays a character almost a third of her age, prompting audible sounds of disbelief from the audience the first time Lavinia’s age is mentioned.

And the argument that there were no mature roles available doesn’t work here, either: Christine’s role is one of the play’s meatiest.

For whatever reason, McGillis and director Michael Kahn have made this play the latest in their string of vanity productions for the actress, but this time there’s no hint of the subtle, nuanced performer who made her name in the film “Witness” over a decade ago.

Deprived of her mother’s love growing up, Lavinia is obsessively fixated on her father, to the point of trying to “become another wife to him.” When he returns home from the Civil War, she’s quick to try to dominate his time and attention, and holds a blackmail threat over her mother’s head (mom has been consorting with a seaman, Mannon’s long-lost nephew).

When Mannon dies, his heart medication replaced by poison, McGillis leaps onto his bed, roaring with agony, cradling his dead body against her. But instead of seeming tragic, it’s a performance that draws chuckles from the audience, and drove some for the exits during the play’s two intermissions.

And this isn’t just a momentary lapse: Every scene McGillis is in is infected with what might diplomatically be called “energy,” although “gross overacting” seems more accurate. Even Dorn and van Griethuysen give broader performances when onstage with her, either trying to keep the scenes on an even keel or simply trying to keep up.

“Mourning Becomes Electra” is the Shakespeare Theater’s first full-out failure in memory. If you need your classics fix, try to hold on for two weeks: the Shakespeare Theater will return to the Carter Bannon amphitheater for outdoor performances of “Henry V” on June 1.

Studio’s ‘Sylvia’: howlingly funny

Thursday, April 24, 1997, 0:00
Section: Awards,Journalism

Virginia Press Association

This is one of three Potomac News reviews that won me a first place Virginia Press Association award in the Critical Writing category for medium-size newspapers in January 1998.

Skip to the end of this review. Find the phone number for tickets to “Sylvia” at the Studio Theater. Call it. Buy some tickets. Go. Trust me.

You haven’t called yet, have you? Fine. Read the rest of the review first, but don’t call the Potomac News in a huff if the tickets are all sold out by the time you finally do call.

“Sylvia,” to snatch an ad slogan from the television world, is must-see theater.

This smart, funny four-person play spotlights the stray dog Manhattanite Tom brings back from a walk in Central Park one day, after having yet another fight with his boss.

Sylvia and he make an immediate connection, and she’s the first person in his life in a long time to give him unconditional love, without the Machiavellian manipulations present in so many of his other relationships.

Oh, yes, Sylvia is a person, brought to hilarious life by Sarah Marshall, last seen as Oliver North’s maniacal devil-on-the-shoulder in the Signature Theater’s “Three Nights in Teheran.”

Part of the fun is that the characters are able to converse with Sylvia, fleshing out the human-canine relationship quite nicely:

“I love you, Greg!”

“I know, Sylvia, but sit.”

“Gladly, Greg.”

Marshall bounds around the stage with convincingly canine body language and a refreshing lack of human modesty.

While Greg finds Sylvia to be just the right thing for his midlife crisis, his wife Kate, sees things differently. She’s just beginning an ambitious new career adding Shakespeare to the middle school curriculum, and doesn’t think a dog fits into their lifestyle.

Greg and Kate have passed their “doggie years,” as Kate puts it, with their kids in college and their home in the suburbs traded for a chic in-town apartment. But Greg, who increasingly feels his job isn’t “real,” finds Sylvia speaks to a deep-seated need in him.

“A man and his dog is a sacred relationship,” a fellow dog owner on Central Park’s Dog Hill tells Greg. “What nature hath put together, let no woman put asunder.”

“I feel like I’m up against something that’s gone of for hundreds of thousands of years,” Kate says, “Ever since the first wolf came out of the woods and hunkered down next to a caveman by the fire.”

Kate and Sylvia circle each other warily throughout the play, each trying to get the upper hand in their tug-of-war for Tom’s soul.

“I want you to know that all you are is a male menopausal moment,” Kate tells the canine at one point, not inaccurately. The question, of course, is whether Sylvia’s appearance marks a sea change in Greg’s life.

Kate is determined that this, too, shall pass. Sylvia, on the other hand, is determined that she’s here to stay. Their battle takes up the rest of the play, and draws in innocent bystanders and consumes the marriage, threatening to break it apart.

Although “Sylvia” is charming and often cute, the dog is, well, earthy, and the play isn’t necessarily family fare.

“Nice crotch here, nice crotch!” she announces as a visitor struggles to get the dog away from her lap. “This is just my way of saying ‘hello!'”

Scatological humor, a fact of life in the doggie world, also gets some play.

“Excuse me, I have to go check my messages,” Sylvia says at one point, then scampers off to sniff a telephone pole.

Of particular note is a cryingly funny scene where Sylvia spots a cat and launches into a profanity-strewn invective that would make a Navy SEAL blush.

Families sensitive to foul language or doggie romance might want to stay away. But it’s all very much in character for the dog, and Sarah Marshall gives an award-worthy performance.

In any other play, J. Fred Shiffman, who plays a trio of characters, would have stolen the show. He morphs from book-quoting dog owner in the park, to Phillis, a Vassar classmate of Kate’s, to the ambiguously gendered marriage counselor Leslie. Shiffman seems to be channeling Carol Burnett, making all his characters funny and memorable in their own right.

Almost another performer is the clean, even austere set, especially the furniture that moves on and offstage seemingly by magic, thanks to near-invisible tracks hidden in the wooden floor.


Copyright © Beau Yarbrough, all rights reserved
Veritas odit moras.